Video game music has for decades been the portion of the medium I carry with me the longest. Playlists full of video game music have accompanied me through life, carrying with them countless memories and experiences.
More and more these musical experiences are finding new homes in live performances. The most recent of these is Undertale Live, which featured its world premiere on Jan. 11 in Chicago.
Undertale Live is the latest in a series of successful video game concerts produced by AWR Music Productions. Based in Chicago, AWR has most notably staged performances from Final Fantasy with its Distant Worlds concert series. Coming up next for AWR is a NieR: Automata concert series with performances planned in Los Angeles, Chicago, London, and Bangkok.
In addition to AWR, Undertale Live is co-produced by Fifth House Ensemble, a Chicago-based chamber music ensemble. This ensemble offers a more intimate setting and feel than ones featuring a full symphony. That sort of connection suits the theme and orchestration of the source material well as Undertale tends to be a very personal experience for fans. Fifth House has also played large gaming venues such as MAGFest and is the current Ensemble in Residence at the Music Institute of Chicago.
“Undertale invites audiences to explore a secret world of monsters who were sealed underground long ago with an ingenious twist: that it’s possible to spare monsters rather then slaying them, inviting players to empathize with those most unlike themselves,” the Fifth House website states about the game and performance.
The venue for the sold out show was the Studebaker Theater, a charming location with a lot of history. I sat in the balcony which I think provided a better view of the screen behind the musicians.
A pre-recorded and edited-for-time playthrough of Undertale highlights the performance with the ensemble playing music appropriate to each area of the game. The interesting twist of the performance, however, was how the audience played a role in the show. During several points in the show the audience was asked to make choices, changing what pieces of music would be heard along the course of the show. That interaction kept the audience lively, with laughter and call-outs from people in the seats throughout the performance.
For my showing the audience predictably offered to spare everyone along the way, leading to the true pacifist ending.
Overall the experience was outstanding. Seeing Undertale Live was like sharing a fond memory with a group of friends. The crowd readily matched the emotions of what was being seen and heard, becoming silent as the performance reached its emotional climax. The ensemble did an excellent job of translating the simple and memorable sounds of Undertale to a live performance, particularly for any of the pieces featuring piano.
What I found particularly striking was that you’d sometimes receive a thank you text message back from the voting service, but I did not hear a single phone sound during the entire showing. The audience, venue, and performance itself came together in a way that made the entire evening something special.
While the performance was excellent, it was still an opening night and could see some improvements for the future. There was a sequence during the Undyne chase to Hotland where the screen went dark for an extended period of time, leaving me momentarily wondering if something had gone wrong. The more common feedback I’m sure will be the inclusion of Bergentrückung without including Asgore’s theme afterward. I’m fairly sure I could feel the breath taken away from some of the people near me as the performance moved on to the true pacifist boss battle. I assume that Asgore’s theme is included in the non-pacifist route, but it did take a little bit away from the show.
The future is definitely bright for Undertale Live. As of this writing, a second showing on Jan. 12 has nearly sold out, according to the official website. There are no current dates for future performances, but with recording for a studio album of Undertale Live, I’d be very surprised if this show didn’t make it on the road sometime soon.